It seems to me as if, with the dawn of each new day, I begin something new. I’m not sure whether this thought has a name – optimism, perhaps – but it is not something that everyone has or feels as they open their eyes and realise, to their surprise or gratitude, that they are still here, and that another chance lies before them. Or perhaps as they open their eyes, and wish to be able to simply turn over, put the covers back over their heads, and let the world continue as it was without them. I am also sure that we have all experienced both, that we have all jumped out of our bed in joy and anticipation, or lain there, warmly wrapped up, and regretted that we must leave this cocoon and face another round outside, in the machine. I’ve never really taken the time to consider why this is, why some days are so much better than others, even before they have begun, or why we just want to give up on the whole thing and disappear, even though the experience of both states of mind remains within living memory for me, as it does for many others.
There is a belief, for some, that a golden era was experienced in our youth, or back in a time that we can either not remember, or cannot have experienced. The era before this one was always better, because so much has changed, people are now so disrespectful, education and all the other normal services of a decent society have gone downhill, the world has become a worse place. We can, perhaps, say that for ourselves, but for the entire world? And is this something new, because the world really has become a worse place in our own lifetime? Murasaki Shikibu wrote:
Everything is on the decline, compared to the old days […] and this latter age of ours has lost all depth…
She was writing about Japan, but not the Japan we know: here work was written in the eleventh century and, even then, the golden era was earlier. I could dig out a quotation from Socrates too, lamenting the roughness and rudeness of youth in his times, as they show no respect to their elders: so the golden era must have been before he trod this earth, more than two and a half thousand years ago.
Or perhaps we are thinking back to a time when everything seemed to be wonderful, and we always got our own way: everything was there when we needed it, from food through to love and affection. Our childhood days which, I daresay, many look back upon with longing, as a time without stress and responsibility, cutting out the tears and the pouting, the stamping of feet and loudly shouted demands for fairness in our favour, and the disinclination to eat our vegetables or go to bed at the right time of night.
I have no doubt whatsoever that you, bearing in mind your current situation, can think of many different times which were considerably better, when the rising sun was welcomed, and each new day was a pleasant and sought for event full of promise. I am sure that we all, in our own way, can look back and see better times, but not in quite the same manner, not with such a major change to lifestyle, possibilities, environment. But I also see a certain level of optimism: you reaching out to find like-minded people to correspond with and to enhance, to open up your own horizons, through the beautiful and very under-rated art of letter writing.
Everything I wanted to do in those years when I was no one has turned out little by little…
If you do not take the first step, you cannot begin the journey, you cannot reach that horizon, you cannot find that which you desire. I have been writing letters for several decades, and discovered a treasure of experiences through many wonderful people all around the world, which I had not suspected was there. To experience, albeit only on paper and in your imagination, a different world through the eyes of another person is something akin to falling under the spell of a well-written novel, where the author takes you out of your own surroundings, and places you within a world they have created, but which you can change and adapt through your own imagination. The only difference here, with letter writing, is that the author is there for you and for you alone. There are no other readers, no one else is in the audience, and through your own replies you can change the story, brighten or darken the view you receive, challenge the writer to find what is new, or reconsider what is old, and tell you their innermost thoughts.
When I tell people that letter writing is something very intimate, they see the wrong meaning of that single word. It is intimate in that one person is writing exclusively to another, and there is no longer an audience for those written words. In Victorian times, in England, it was normal for a letter to be shared, even copied and passed on to other people within a family or of close acquaintance. The same letter might be sent out to two or three different people, and be acceptable as a shared experience for all. Letter writing, compared to our modern times and the quickness of movement, was an expensive pastime, but considered one of absolute necessity and the sign of good breeding and education. Today it is neglected, no longer taught in schools, superseded by electronic mail and texting. And still, it lives on as one of the best methods of communication known to us, and as one of the most pleasurable.
What I want now is to spend the rest of my life free of sorrow and to devote myself in seclusion to prayers for the life to come, but actually, I regret not having anything yet to remember this one by.
Of course, in our case this is not quite true, we both have things to remember this life by, but not necessarily those things which we planned a few years ago and so, here, with the sun rising on a new day and the chance of something new brightening it, is our chance to change things for the better or, perhaps, simply to gain something worth remembering in the future, worth keeping alive for the future. Which may all seem very strange to you, since my style of letter writing is probably something you have not come across before, is not something you might have imagined, but that is as much the pleasure of my writing – for me – as it is a challenge for you. We are two completely different people, separated by half a world, and half a lifetime, and if that doesn’t make for some potentially interesting conversations, then there is little in this world that does.
My own interests, in case you haven’t already spotted some from the quotations, are reading and writing letters, but I also love delving into philosophical arguments, into history and other forms of literature from across the ages. I collect antique photography, and spend a good deal of my time, when not reading, writing or in debates, wandering about flea markets trying to strike a good deal for one or another image which happens to capture my interest. Sometimes I am very lucky indeed, both in the price negotiated and the bounty I gain, sometimes the day’s highlight is a herring sandwich and cup of fresh coffee, but an empty shopping bag. Flea markets are a big thing over here, and some of the larger cities have one, two, even three going on at the same time, often every single week. I spend my Saturdays, in the summer months, wandering along the banks of the river Weser in Bremen, where there has been a flea market for decades. Sunday is set aside for the main flea market either behind the central railway station in Bremen, or underneath a covered car park across town. Some weekends there are markets in smaller towns and villages, my own town has one twice a year, which is always a big draw for me. Sadly they no longer allow the commercial dealers, so many of my suppliers are not there but, as luck would have it, photographs turn up in attics and are offered by innocent people willing to part with their (unbeknownst to them) treasures for small change. One of my recent excellent finds cam e from a half-yearly market, in a complete album of photographs from before 1900, which spread a smile across my face I had to suppress very quickly, for fear of the seller catching on, and raising his demands.
I write my letters in my own small private library, being surrounded by books has a certain warmth to it, and the benefit of allowing me inspiration whenever a thought enters my head. There are times when someone else said something better than I can, their formulation is more succinct, but the message the same, and I have no problem is taking up the reins formerly held by Victorian letter writers and authors who, often in Latin or Greek, would quote whatever they felt appropriate, whatever fell in their hands and seemed of potential interest for their readers. The chances of me slipping Latin or Greek quotations into my letters are relatively small, however, as I much prefer the English translations. Writing a first letter, as this one is, can be particularly hard, so inspiration to give a boost and get the words flowing is always an advantage – and so I am more than grateful for that moment of encouragement and motivation given by Murasaki Shikibu which drove me away from staring at a blank sheet of paper, and into the depths of ideas and a writing direction. Sometimes it is hard to begin, as hard as getting out of bed without some motivation to move on a bitterly cold morning, and ideas from other sources than my own imagination are more than welcome. I am sure you appreciate this, just as much as anyone who has been faced with writing a profile for themselves, and not knowing how to attract interest, how to stimulate someone else into grabbing paper and pen, and putting their own words down on paper just for you.
In addition I travel a good deal, mainly in Europe but sometimes a little further afield. I have been travelling almost all my adult life, and have experienced life in some of the best middle class hotels and bed and breakfasts around the world, as well as under choice bridges (London), on railway concourses (Venice), in the stairwells of high-rise car parks (Paris) on beaches (Rimini) and even the middle of the Saudi Arabian desert. I am sure there are many stories I can tell from those old days, whether they were better than today or not I shall let you be the judge of.
My letters are a mixture of what I have seen, the experiences of today and yesterday, what I have read and where I have been. They draw on European life, on American life, on philosophy, history and the arts, as well as taking what people write to me and drawing their ideas and inspiration out further. They explore everyday life as much as comparing what we see and experience today to that which I have lived through in the past, and they tend to be reasonably long – which is not to say that I demand the same back from my correspondents. We are all individuals with our own manner and style of writing, with our own interests and hobbies, thoughts, plans, expectations, whatever. No two people have the same experiences, even when those two people are standing next to one another, looking in the same direction, watching the same events, and it is this individuality which fascinates. If everyone was the same, life would be very boring indeed, and then who wouldn’t want to just crawl back under the bedclothes and forget the outside world and its commitments? And that is the challenge: to dig deep into your mind, into your memories, into your thoughts on past, present and future, and dive into the unknown waters of writing to an Englishman, lost in a foreign land, who you know next to nothing about, but who is prepared to take you on a small, hopefully fascinating, written journey.